Halloween might be over a month away, but new teachers have their own terror to face as school begins: "Classroom" and "management" are two of the scariest words for anyone about to start teaching for the first time. Unfortunately, most new teachers are right to be nervous. The preventative techniques they learned in their teacher prep programs are not enough to keep students focused on learning. The good news is that there are changes that prep programs – and districts – can make to help new teachers keep their classrooms running smoothly.
Typically, teacher prep programs teach a passive approach to classroom management. They tell aspiring teachers that their students will automatically focus on learning if they set up the right conditions, specifically:
- Creating engaging lessons to capture students' attention
- Setting up the classroom to make materials easily accessible and reduce opportunities for distraction
- Creating and teaching classroom procedures that minimize the time spent on activities like collecting papers
- Establishing classroom rules, perhaps with the participation of students, and setting consequences for breaking those rules
The programs evaluated in NCTQ's Teacher Prep Review frequently emphasized the skills listed above.
While preventative classroom management techniques are useful, they are not enough by themselves. All teachers should also learn two essential, active classroom management strategies:
- Praising students for positive behavior has been shown to be a powerful tool, yet only about a quarter of prep programs address it during student teaching. When used correctly, praise can instill in students the motivation to improve their own behavior.
- Often, it is more effective to use unobtrusive methods to respond to minor misbehavior than to give the kind of consequences prep programs cover. When a student is staring into space or tapping his pencil, simply walking over to his desk and standing next to him can get him back on track, without interrupting instruction. Reprimanding the student in front of the class may feed his frustration with school, leading to more unproductive behavior.
In addition, NCTQ's 2013 report, Training our Future Teachers: Classroom Management, found that most programs' coursework has students "practice" classroom management only through pen-and-pencil exercises - for example, writing a plan that describes classroom rules and consequences for breaking them. Unfortunately, knowing what you want to do when a student disrupts the class is not enough. Before entering the classroom as a student teacher, aspiring teachers should practice classroom management techniques in classroom-like settings often enough that they become part of teachers' muscle memory.
What can programs and districts do right away to improve teachers' classroom management skills and their students' ability to learn?
- Start by ensuring that evaluation forms used to give feedback to student teachers incorporate all of the techniques most strongly supported by research. This relatively simple step will ensure that teacher candidates practice these skills and receive feedback before graduating. NCTQ offers tips.
- Teach how to use praise and low-profile responses to minor misbehavior through class work and field experiences.
- Ensure that candidates have extensive practice with classroom management skills through simulations, video, and fieldwork. Offer expert feedback on candidates' use of these skills.
- Cover the use of praise and low-profile responses to minor misbehavior in induction programs, knowing that these techniques are valuable but might not have been taught and practiced in teacher prep programs.
- Offer opportunities for new teachers to practice using these techniques through simulations and videos, and give teachers explicit feedback on their use of them in the classroom.
Classroom management is the bedrock on which in-school learning rests. If students are distracting each other or a teacher is overwhelmed by inappropriate behavior, no one is learning! If the teacher does not know how to get the students back on track, it does not matter how well she knows her subject or how much she cares about her kids. Research has identified powerful classroom management strategies that every teacher should have in her toolbox. It's time for teacher prep programs and districts to ensure that teachers know these strategies.